Embracing Stillness
Taming the Monkey Mind With Vipassana Meditation

Noble silence: Vipassana courses are also very successful outside of India. Religion plays no role during the ten-day silent mediation. Instead, the focus is on releasing blockages and emotions. © shutterstock

Society is wired to always be in a rush, to head somewhere or do something. What if you were asked to take a break from everything for ten days and be still?

Nimish Sawant

The average human has 6,200 thoughts per day, according to a 2020 study. That comes out to around four thoughts a minute. While handling these thoughts, we are also going through the motions of the day — waking up, working, eating, relaxing, going back to sleep. Not to mention, using our smartphones, an average of 5 hours a day as of 2021, where we seek dopamine-inducing notifications. Our attention has become a commodity that the digital world has exploited to extreme lengths.   
While we have evolved from primates, there is one thing that has remained: the “monkey mind,” which refers to the way our mind constantly swings from one thought to the next, making it difficult to focus on any single thing. In a world where you are expected to constantly be on the top of your game, the monkey mind is the boss. Fighting it is fruitless. 
One of the most effective ways that has been found to tame the monkey mind is by embracing stillness and focusing on the here and now.  
This is easier said than done, given the quantity of thoughts that pass through our minds every waking second. But practitioners of an ancient movement called Vipassana have claimed to have better control over their minds. One of the movement’s most vocal proponents is renowned author Yuval Noah Harari who has written masterpieces such as Sapiens, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, and Homo Deus. Harari’s yearly calendar revolves around his 30- or 60-day Vipassana retreats, where he completely disconnects from the world and is alone with his thoughts. In his many talks, he has credited Vipassana retreats for the mental balance it gave him to focus on and complete his three bestsellers. Additionally, it helped him come to terms with the consequences of their popularity and respond to criticism. 

What Exactly is Vipassana?

Vipassana translates to “seeing things as they really are.” It is a meditation technique discovered around 2,500 years ago by Gautama Buddha. S.N. Goenka began to teach it in its modern form in 1969. It has since spread all over the world, just like yoga. But unlike yoga, which involves physical exercises alongside guided meditations, Vipassana is purely about meditation and focusing on your breath as it enters and leaves your nose. It is comprised of a ten-day residential course, where participants are expected to follow certain precepts, one of which is not talking. For ten days, your accommodation and food are taken care of, and you do not have to pay for anything. The program is financed by voluntary donations from Vipassana practitioners.  
Mindfulness coach Manish Behl notes, “The Vipassana centers developed by S.N. Goenka require ten days of strict monastic discipline, getting up at 4:00 a.m., meditating for over eleven hours throughout the day, and going to bed by 9:30 p.m. Starting on day one, you are not supposed to read, write, gesticulate, talk, or communicate with the outside world.” This is the kind of schedule that would overwhelm any human being. But it’s what you sign up for when you enroll.  
In a way, it is a silent retreat, where you do nothing other than meditate for the majority of the day. Think of it as taking a physical and mental holiday from your identity as an individual in society and all societal expectations.  
34-year-old Kaushik Dedhiya, a senior manager at the Mumbai-based software firm IDfy, underwent the ten-day Vipassana course last year, and he calls it a life-transforming experience. Dedhiya is a workaholic for whom ten- to 12-hour workdays were not out of the ordinary. There was a phase in July 2020 when Dedhiya had severe migraines and realized that he was not able to control his emotions or anger issues.  
“One of the scariest prospects of committing to a ten-day Vipassana program was being away from my seven-year-old daughter. Before this, I had never spent this long away from her. I had to mentally prepare her and myself for it,” said Dedhiya.

The Importance of Being Isolated and Embracing Stillness

According to Behl, the major aim of Vipassana is to understand impermanence and attain a mental state of non-attachment by observing bodily sensations. “Isolation helps to keep all kinds of external stimuli at bay. It helps the meditator fully focus on meditation and observe this inner state of being, without being disturbed by anything.” 
The larger goal of Vipassana is to help an individual focus the mind on observing the tiniest of physical sensations. The overarching philosophy hinges on the fact that we are always reacting to the physical sensations in our bodies. But in our daily grind, we become desensitized to what the body is trying to tell us. When you are shorn of all external and internal distractions, you naturally tend to become more attuned with your bodily sensations, which are the root causes of our emotional reactions.  
Behl notes that in the everyday rush of life, the end result is stress, anxiety, burnout, and resentment. “We often talk about taking time out for relaxation and self-care, but in reality when our lives become busy and chaotic, we often forget to decelerate. Stillness and relaxation are extremely important to observe and effectively respond to the challenges in our lives.” 
The first three days of the course are preparation for the mind to learn how to focus. From day four onwards, the Vipassana training enters the most important phase.  
“Vipassana allows you to feel sensations all around your body and stay in equanimity knowing that each and every thing in life, like these sensations, is impermanent in nature. It helps you realize that it is pointless to have cravings or aversions towards something that is temporary in nature,” notes Dedhiya. 

Tough Times During Vipassana

But Dedhiya cautions that Vipassana should not be seen as a magic wand that will solve all your issues. “I still get angry and have to deal with negative emotions, but now, I realize these issues much more quickly. This is the biggest beneficial change, as it then helps me control my emotional state faster.” 
On a Quora thread on the drawbacks of Vipassana, South Africa-based Siobhan Yvonne Ashmole responded to a question on how the egoic structure crumbles during the ten-day Vipassana practice. “Your ego will try to trick you into keeping it alive. On my first retreat on day three to four (just before the real breakthroughs), everyone in our group had a deep, urgent need to contact their families or spouses. We were all convinced that someone in our family had died or needed help or was ill. Because you are meditating so much, this really felt like an intuitive calling, not a niggling worry.”  
Dedhiya had a similar experience during his session. Recalling his fourth day, Dedhiya said everything went fine till 9:00 a.m., but after that, he felt his mind playing tricks on him that his daughter Kiyara was unwell, and he had to be by her side. Dedhiya had resolved to quit the program and head home. It was only after he communicated this to his teacher, and he got counseled that his mind was calmer, and he went on to complete the ten days.  
Ashmole further noted in her Quora response, “As a group, when we discussed our experiences on day ten, we discovered that this is actually a common way that the ego tries to get us to leave because it senses its demise. It plays on our sensibilities.”  
According to Behl, the objective of the ten-day retreat is to reach a mental and physical state in which the mind is focussed on the breath and bodily sensations, and it isn’t allowed to wander.  
“The aim is to understand impermanence, attain a pristine mental state of non-attachment by observing bodily sensation, and cultivate a sense of resilience, calm, and equanimity.”

Backed by Scientific Research

Before you think this is just some spiritual mumbo jumbo, Vipassana and mindfulness techniques are a matter of intense scientific research with more than 1,600 research papers and articles published on the practice in 2020 alone.  
“UCLA and UC Berkeley have found that long-term meditators have better preserved brains and age much more slowly. People who are meditating for an average of 20 years have more gray matter volume in their brain,” said Behl.  
Apart from working professionals, Vipassana has also helped hardened criminals in Tihar Jail in North India as well as many correctional facilities in the U.S. According to the study in Tihar Jail, subjects were found to be less hostile towards their environment, and they felt less helpless. The psychiatric patients, who comprised 23% of the sample, noted improvement in their symptoms of anxiety and depression. These studies have been replicated with similar results in international jails as well.  
Behl concurs with the benefits of being mindful about your thoughts via meditation techniques. “Multiple reports link mindfulness with improved cognitive functioning. A study at UC Davis found that mindfulness meditators may preserve the tips of their chromosomes, which wither away as we age.”  
According to Behl, one can truly benefit after a ten-day course if one practices meditation regularly and learns to incorporate it into their daily life. It is recommended for Vipassana students to practice at least two hours of meditation per day. Dedhiya still tries to practice for at least 15 minutes every day and hopes to make ten-day Vipassana retreats an annual routine. He calls Vipassana one of the most brutal ways to transform yourself but says that the result is completely worth it.  
“When you reach that state of equanimity during your meditation, where neither happiness nor sorrow bothers you, and you realize that all emotions are temporary, something shifts inside you.”

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